In the Gupta Empire, in about 700AD, where Indian mathematicians were establishing zero as a number, and Indian scientists were debating whether the Earth moved around the Sun, the courtiers were playing a board game. The rules were fairly simple; some pieces could move forwards, others could only move diagonally, and some made a crooked little jump in any direction. The game, Chaturanga ('four-parted'), was extremely addictive, and so it made its way to the West pretty much intact a few hundred years later as our modern game of chess. Except, instead of knights and rooks and bishops, the flavours of the crusade, the pieces were carved to represent the four traditional divisions of the Indian army - infantry, cavalry, chariots... and elephants.
Seven centuries later, in Northern Italy, we find the poet Hieronymus Vida (a hack and imitator of Virgil) polishing up a poem about the new game - that's his first stanza at the top of the post. In mock-heroic style, it's being played by Hermes and Apollo, who are both camping about with nymphs and swains and 'flowry mead'. He even invented a Thracian goddess of chess, Caïssa, to fill a gap in the market. What you'll see, though, is that while all the other pieces have morphed into their modern form from their Indian counterparts, the Renaissance mind couldn't bring itself to throw out the elephant with the bathwater. It's even gained a castle:
The elephant gradually disappeared from chess, and all we were left with was that 'frowning castle', the rook ♜. But the image endured, of a towering Indian elephant with a stone turret carried on its back and no hint of a grudge on its face. Elephant and Castle station (a no-brainer) has a big red statue of it outside, standing on a grotty plinth, but you can also find it on the logo of a major American restaurant chain, and the Worshipful Company of Cutlers.
The fascination with the fortified elephant probably started with medieval monks in England and France, who were steadily refining bestiaries of all God's creatures, passed down since 500AD from the Greeks at Alexandria, and illuminating them with their best guess of the animal's disposition. They knew that the elephants had been used in war, and the Greeks mentioned men building platforms on them for archers, but giving them the strength and patience to bear a full-blown castle is all the work of the medieval genius. And, no sooner had the castle made an appearance than the bestiary illuminators were trying to outdo each other with ever more extensive ones. Like they say: monk see, monk do.
Needless to say, elephants can't carry castles. In fact, elephants seem pretty ill-suited to warfare. Pliny the Elder, writing just after the death of Christ, thought that elephants had no knees and couldn't get back up if they fell over, and a result were doomed to sleep standing up or resting against trees. They were also so afraid of the smallest squeal of a pig that they would about-turn and flee if they heard it. And, inevitably, "of all other living creatures, they cannot abide a mouse or a rat".
This rumour was incredibly persistent in the ancient world, and while we now know that elephants do have knees and are permitted a lie-down once in a while, their fear of rodents has remained a bone of contention. Like Pliny says, it sounds ridiculous that "these terrible beasts (as outragious otherwise as they seeme)" could be afraid of such a small thing, but I challenge you to watch the Mythbusters episode about it and not feel the tiniest, teensiest, mouse-sized doubt. The Greeks who fought against elephants certainly believed that they were easily spooked; the siege of Megara in 266BC was only broken when the townspeople doused pigs in pitch, set them alight and sent them squealing towards the elephants, who crushed their own soldiers as they fled.
Somehow this timid, unpredictable giant and unwilling soldier became the most feared weapon of the ancient world. When Alexander the Great met the Persians at Gaugamela, he became the first westerner to see war elephants. The night before the battle, he summoned his soothsayer Aristander and together they sat around a fire through the night, offering sacrifice to Phobos, the god of fear. But the next day Alexander won the battle easily, and he caught and trained more elephants to use in his own army, snaring them with a honey-trap of tame female elephants in a pit.
With the Persians in retreat, the rest of the empire fell without a serious battle being fought. So, with his elephants in tow, Alexander moved to conquer India. Yet by the time he reached India, five years later, and faced an army which had been using elephants for hundreds of years, he decided to abandon his own completely. Against 80 Indian elephants, and 30,000 soldiers, Alexander's tiny force won. The colossal beast, terrifying to someone who had never seen it before, was now seen as a tactical disadvantage.
Pyrrhus, in 280BC, took twenty elephants across the Adriatic to attack the Romans at Heraclea. The Romans, who had never fought elephants before, were routed in a spectacular capture of the peninsular. But a year later they returned, with ox-led chariots and flaming pots to scare the elephants, and while the Epirots under Pyrrhus won the day, they sustained terminal casualties and limped back to Greece, giving rise to the term Pyrrhic Victory. He didn't use elephants again.
Hannibal, the most famous of the elephant generals, suffered more than anybody else on their account. As he crossed the Alps in 218BC, his thirty-seven elephants gradually dwindled in the bitter cold until only a few were left when he marched into Northern Italy. A decade later, as he fought the Romans from the doorstep of Carthage, he sent 80 elephants against the Roman troops. They were posted in front of the infantry and, when ordered, would charge at 25mph in a straight line towards the Roman lines. However, Scipio Africanus (immortalised in the Italian national anthem) simply waited for the advancing elephants and, at the desired moment, ordered the blowing of trumpets. Just like the pigs at Megara, the squealing of the trumpets sent the elephants charging back at the Carthaginians. It was a heavy loss for Hannibal, and he submitted himself to voluntary exile.
The fall of Carthage marked the end of the use of elephants in European wars, at least on such a large scale. Their weaknesses were now too obvious, and their advantage too slight, to be worth dragging through mountains or floating across water. But as the centuries passed, and first-hand accounts became few and far between, imagination was once again allowed to take hold. The elephant began to rebuild its reputation. Hannibal's elephants were probably able to carry three archers and a driver in a little wooden box on their backs, called a Howdah. By the early 13th Century, the Howdah had become a miniature wooden turret, and by the end of the 13th Century it was a whole castle.
The further people got from the war elephant, and the less information they had, the more awful it seemed. An exotic and impossible monster. It makes sense then that this ancient scaredy-cat, repelled by mice, pigs and trumpets, could only retain its original effect today in the realms of fantasy - as Tolkein's Oliphaunts, or in Age of Empires, or in chess - where its weaknesses can be painlessly stripped away. In these fantasy worlds, it is allowed to be the devastating force that Alexander must have imagined as he sat around the fire with Aristander, at Gaugamela. But in the real world, we couldn't resist the idea of a remorseless, impenetrable and indomitable beast, the kind of weapon that keeps you up at night, praying to Phobos.
So we built it. It even has a trunk.
[Panzerjäger Tiger (P), 'Elefant' - WW2 Tank-Destroyer]